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Education and Social Mobility (1982)

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Although specialized training has priority, general education is not neglected entirely. For example, anyone who completes a master craftsman’s certificate has to have read at least five belletristic books and be able to say something about them, two of them from the “cultural heritage,” and three modern ones. The required titles change from time to time.

Knowledge and skills are also bartering objects; that is very obvious in the technical field. Whoever can build or repair something has a “good” to offer. The same is true for all kinds of advisory activities. Usually incomes increase with the level of education. But social climbing does not always mean financial advancement. A typesetter earns more than someone who is qualified to train typesetters; a construction worker can have more take-home pay than a civil engineer; a university graduate definitely earns less money than a window cleaner. These discrepancies in the pay structure along with a general dissatisfaction with the state keep some young people from striving for further education. Based on experience, this fatigue and lassitude does not persist for years. Soon after getting married, furnishing an apartment, and the first child, one of the partners decides to go back to school. If the husband is a qualified engineer, the wife wants at least to complete her master craftswoman’s certificate. A familiar sentence among young women is: “Now it’s my turn.” Level of education is a family’s trademark. The woman’s profession always counts and is usually more deliberately appraised because it allows conclusions to be drawn about lifestyles. When introductions are made at social gatherings, the occupations of both are always named, usually along with the place of work and the type of work they do: Frau Meier, team leader at the telecommunications plant; Herr Meier, parts manufacturer in the construction combine. Occupations are a starting point for conversation; further or continuing education is – after bartering – the most popular topic of conversation.

The state-promoted drive for education harbors risks for the state. Anyone who knows what’s going on might use his knowledge “for the good of society,” but will also judge social processes more critically. Greater knowledge leads to expectations, and to more informed and complicated debates. The bitterness that knowledgeable people often experience when decisions are not made according to a specialized point of view is increasing. Criticism and unrest grow in proportion to knowledge. There’s no telling what will come of that. But no one doubts the value of knowledge and skills; they are everyone’s well-invested capital.

Source: Irene Böhme, Die da drüben. Sieben Kapitel DDR [Over There. The GDR in Seven Chapters]. Berlin (West), 1982, pp. 75-79.

Translation: Allison Brown

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